Category Archives: Your Private Driver

Your Private Driver: Just the Tip

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for transportation network company (TNC) platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

It’s been some week for Uber news, hasn’t it? The departure of CEO Travis Kalanick made headlines, particularly since he joins a dozen other executives that have left the company so far this year. The spat with Waymo isn’t over yet. And the debate over whether or not Uber can survive the next few years without going bankrupt will provide fodder for tech and financial blogs for the foreseeable future. For my part, however, this week I wanted to focus on some more positive news coming from Uber HQ: the “180 Days of Change” campaign designed to finally address long-standing driver complaints and grievances about the platform.  Continue reading Your Private Driver: Just the Tip

Your Private Driver: The Carpool Lane is Now Open

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for transportation network company (TNC) platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

Carpooling remains the holy grail for transit planners trying to relieve congestion on overtaxed roads and highways. It’s inexpensive, it’s faster than public transit in any American city not named New York, and it’s the most effective method of actually taking cars off the road during rush hour. It can frequently be much faster than driving solo as well, thanks to HOV lanes in major cities. In San Francisco for example, carpoolers can save a whopping thirty minutes or more commuting from the East Bay to the city center.  Continue reading Your Private Driver: The Carpool Lane is Now Open

Your Private Driver: City Planning

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

A video game has consumed the majority of my personal time for the past two weeks, threatening to become something of an addiction. That game is Cities: Skylines, a city-building simulator in the vein of the classic SimCity franchise. I’ve already spent over 100 hours building freeways and interchanges, laying out residential and industrial areas, making sure the landfills don’t overflow, salvaging the shorelines from floods, and dealing with rush-hour traffic. That last part is the game’s biggest challenge; so much so that once I actually managed to mostly eliminate the traffic jams plaguing my virtual downtown area, I felt like I knew how to clear up Los Angeles’s legendary traffic congestion better than their city planners. Of course I also have a slightly larger pretend-money budget than they do, but since when have such practicalities ever gotten in the way of progress?

My time with the game has still led me to think about the city of Los Angeles in a different way during my travels though it. My brain imagines without prompting ways to improve the flow of freeway interchanges, different routes for public transit, more effective ways to time traffic signals, and whether or not bulldozing a neighborhood to run a freeway through it would be worth the drop in land value and tax revenue. Inevitably the best solution for L.A. is probably the same as it is in my pretend city: get more cars off the road by providing alternate ways of getting around, whether it be by bus, subway, bicycle, or blimp. Okay, maybe not blimps.

Eventually my attention will be drawn to another vehicle with an Uber or Lyft emblem on rear window. Then another one, and another, and–holy crap there are a lot of these things. Seriously, there are so many vehicles sporting an Uber or Lyft trade dress in Los Angeles that getting rid of them would free up about 25 percent more space on the region’s streets and highways. While the rideshare impact probably isn’t as drastic in any other city (with the exception of San Francisco), eventually urban areas all over the United States will have to contend with the added congestion from so many additional vehicles on their roads and freeways. So my Cities: Skylines-modified brain came up with another puzzle to solve: how does one design a city to accommodate for the traffic impact of thousands of Uber/Lyft vehicles on their roads?

You’ll most frequently see rideshare vehicles clogging traffic whenever they’re attempting to pick up or drop off a passenger. In many cities this isn’t an issue, but in congested areas like central Los Angeles, places to pull over out of the path of traffic are at a premium; either they’re all taken up by parked cars (on-street parking spaces are worth more than your life here) or the traffic lanes extend all the way to the curb. Most passengers don’t have the awareness to request their rides from a convenient or even legal spot, so irritated drivers are stuck waiting behind vehicles blocking driveways or turn lanes or even through traffic lanes while three people try to cram their luggage into a trunk that’s too small.

Most shopping and entertainment districts have passenger loading zones (white curbs in California) that allow up to five minutes of wait time to drop off and pick up passengers–perfect for rideshare purposes. Still, these zones can get packed at certain times, like when a restaurant or nightclub closes and there are a rush of requests. Several vehicles are all waiting to take their turn in a loading zone that fits at best two vehicles at a time, and traffic is still backed up.

My personal solution would be to expand these passenger loading zones at the expense of on-street parking. While Uber and Lyft don’t do much for traffic congestion, they do free up the need for a parking space with every trip. In a city where you can spend more time trying to find a place to park than actually driving to your destination in the first place (not an exaggeration), making it easier for people to leave their cars at home seems like a no-brainer. Removing the need for Uber drivers to compete with parked cars for curb space is that natural progression of that trend, and it’ll make driving through commercial districts that much less annoying, since they won’t have to worry nearly as much about rideshare drivers randomly obstructing traffic.

Amusingly enough, this tactic actually did work in my game of Cities: Skylines. Traffic was getting backed up by fleets of buses trying to pull into crowded bus stops, and I didn’t feel like demolishing thirty buildings just to expand the road. So I built a parking garage nearby and replaced the curbside parking lane with a dedicated bus lane. No more buses blocking traffic, problem solved!

While this editorial was really just an excuse to talk about my current favorite video game a little bit, the overall point is something that city planners and traffic managers do have to consider in the real world–that Uber and Lyft are having an adverse traffic impact on their cities, and that likely won’t change until the much-hyped driver-less carpool of the future becomes a reality. While city governments seem to want to address the problem with more regulation of rideshare drivers (to get them off of the roads), there could be other, simpler alternatives.

I wonder if I sent the Transportation Authority a copy of the game would they get the message?

Sekani Wright is an experienced Lyft driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!

Your Private Driver: Lyft Gets on Schedule

This is a returning and soon to be weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

One of the most popular features in the rideshare world is the ability to schedule a ride in advance. I’ve written before about how the feature doesn’t really work the way people think it does, since functionally there’s no difference between a scheduled ride and one requested as you’re walking out the door. Still, the placebo effect is a strong one, and a significant chunk of early-morning rides are scheduled in advance (based on my completely statistically accurate method of asking my riders when I pick them up). This is probably because of marketing. Uber and especially Lyft hype up their services as the inaccurate answer to all of their “Can I get a ride at 4 AM?” inquiries.

Regardless of the lack of any type of guarantee, the feature seems to be working for the most part. Online reviews in the tech sphere are glowing, and reports of driver no-shows are rare and limited to the fringes of social media.

From the driver’s perspective, Lyft seems to be the preferred company to deal with as far as scheduled rides are concerned. For starters, the driver is actually aware that the ride has been scheduled. Depending on how far away the pickup is, the ride may also have a built-in Prime Time bonus, which can make attempting these rides more lucrative than random pings. Uber offers none of these features.

Now, Lyft is stepping their game up once again by allowing drivers to accept scheduled rides in advance. The feature is out in limited release, so not all drivers have access to it yet. When it works properly however, this feature could be a game-changer–at least on the driver’s end. But what does this mean for the passenger?

For one thing, it should offer better odds that a ride request will be completed. Not just for early-morning airport runs, but for suburban areas as well. One of the greatest annoyances to rideshare drivers is getting a ride request that’s 15 to 20 minutes away, only to find out that their passenger is just going to the 7-Eleven a few blocks down the street. In lower-density areas, requests like these are all too common, so a lot of them may go unanswered. Drivers don’t know for certain that a far-away ride request is going to be a short trip; there’s a chance it could be going across the city as well. Still, most drivers know what the odds are in their market and respond accordingly. In my Los Angeles experience, the effort involved in driving 20 minutes away is statistically not worth it.

This new feature takes away all of the guesswork, since drivers can now see well in advance not only where and when a scheduled pickup is, but also where their passenger is going. No more surprises! And armed with this knowledge, drivers are more likely to say “yes” to any trip that benefits their situation. A part-time driver from a nearby suburb may take many short trips to fill their ride quota while making sure they haven’t moved too far away from their home. A full-time driver can make sure they get longer trips or ones heading to a certain destination where they can get more profitable fares. Riders get fewer cancellations or other nonsense to deal with. Everyone wins!

Kudos to Lyft for once again coming up with a useful innovation that benefits their drivers as well as their passengers, instead of useless fluff like achievements. Here’s hoping that their next big breakthrough will be allowing drivers to text their waiting passengers through the app instead of via convoluted workarounds. It’s the little things that really matter, you know?

Sekani Wright is an experienced Lyft driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!

Your Private Driver: Nickel and Dollared

This is a returning and soon to be weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

If you’re in an Uber market with upfront pricing, where you see exactly what your ride is going to cost you before you request it, you’re being overcharged.

Over the past year or so, drivers have been reporting that the fare their passengers pay is often higher than the fare that their pay is calculated from. The original reason for the discrepancy, they figured, was that Uber was simply ripping them off. That would be old news; just about any driver that’s been around long enough to remember the “Winter Warm-up” rate cuts would agree that Uber exists solely to rip them off. It’s a statement of fact, right up there with the sky being blue. Continue reading Your Private Driver: Nickel and Dollared

Your Private Driver: Voice-operated Security Breaches and Other Things

This is a returning and soon to be weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

This week’s column is going to tackle a few different topics, since there’s a lot going on in the general tech world that’s relatable to how we work and play in the rideshare world.

OK Google, ask Siri where Alexa went

Last week there were a lot of conversations on DTNS about voice-operated assistants and how they fit into our lives. The general consensus seemed to be that talking to a box that controls your lights and adds things to your shopping list is cool, but talking to your phone is just dumb. Well, unless you’re driving. With hands-free laws becoming the norm in many states, simply playing with even a dash-mounted phone to perform tasks like getting directions or playing a podcast while driving can get you pulled over by an attentive officer of the law.

Continue reading Your Private Driver: Voice-operated Security Breaches and Other Things

Your Private Driver: Any publicity is…

This is a returning and soon to be weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

Writing about Uber’s woes has long been a way for tech blogs to get some easy, SEO-friendly clicks. Even with that in mind, the bad PR about Uber has hit nightmarish levels. Seriously, a Google search limited to just the first few months of this year gave me more headlines than I could process. There was the #DeleteUber campaign triggered by a suggestion that the company was in support of Trump’s immigration ban back in January, the video where CEO Travis Kalanick was confronted by an upset driver over the constantly falling rates, the blog that triggered an investigation into the company’s culture of ignoring sexual harassment, the issues with their self-driving cars being not very self-driving, the lawsuit from Google-owned Waymo, the criminal investigation over Greyball, the talking to from Apple CEO Tim Cook over unauthorized tracking of iPhone users, the resignation of President Jeff Jones after only about six months on the job…. did I miss anything? Probably, but that sentence was getting really long.

There’s little doubt that Uber is so far having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. There have been hundreds of blogs and opinion pieces predicting the company’s imminent demise. The death of Uber is all but inevitable, it seems.

Well, if Uber is going under soon, someone forgot to tell their users. Despite an estimated half million people requesting the cancellation of their Uber accounts, ridership appears to actually be growing. In fact, Uber says that it had its best week ever as far as ridership in late March, and growth is back to a record pace that has wiped out any negative effects these scandals might have had.

For its part, Uber’s chief competitor, Lyft, has benefited from Kalanick’s woes. The #DeleteUber campaign gave them a significant boost in downloads and an estimated five percent increase in market share, and I can tell you personally that there’s significantly more pink mustache business than there used to be. Lyft wasn’t able to keep up the momentum however, and Uber overtook them on the App Store once again a few days later.

So how is Uber not out of business yet?

One popular theory is that riders don’t value their morals nearly as much as they value their wallets. All Uber has to do is cut their rates a little bit, and the customers will flock back. Indeed, Uber offered flat-rate packages in several cities shortly after the NYC airport drama. The timing of this offer does correspond with the end of Uber’s small dip in popularity. Even now, Uber enjoys a small price advantage over Lyft, particularly in markets with up-front pricing; UberPool rates there are often less than half the cost of a normal uberX or Lyft ride.

Another theory is simply that Uber’s customers have short attention spans. All of that bad press hasn’t stuck in anyone’s mind long enough to make them even briefly pause at pulling out their smartphones and opening the Uber app. The service has become so ubiquitous in the lives of some people that they literally can’t figure out how to get from one place to another without it, an amazing feat for a service that’s been around for only three years in most of the U.S.

So the lesson, it seems, is that as long as Uber can continue to provide a service that’s so cheap and convenient that it’s more work to not use it, the negative PR storm means little to nothing. Besides, what are the alternatives? Walking? Taking the bus? Calling a *gasp* TAXI?! Please, we’re not that uncivilized.

Sekani Wright is an experienced Lyft driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!

Your Private Driver: Thanks, I think

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. Look for it every Tuesday after the live show, right here on dailytechnewsshow.com.

Sorry for the long break, it’s been a busy few weeks as the city of Los Angeles has gradually descended into chaos–well, more than usual. First some reality TV star got elected President, and people weren’t too happy about it. Then people decided to take a break from protesting to go eat turkeys with their families, but everyone drove to see them at the same time. Those who couldn’t drive flew… and there were a LOT of those. Finally, just as things started to get back to normal, more chaos. And on top of all that, I still have to figure out what I’m supposed to do with this thing.

Uber has been pretty busy as well. In addition to a shiny new rider app that has gotten universally negative reviews from my passengers so far, the new president of ride-sharing Jeff Jones is on a self-proclaimed mission to make the lives of drivers easier, safer, and fairer. His first deed of that mission? Compliments.

I completed my merit badge collection already.
I completed my merit badge collection already.

In Uber’s eyes, this is a way to thank your driver because “sometimes, 5 stars just isn’t enough.” I dunno, normally that’s when you leave a tip, but maybe that’s just me… along with pretty much every other Uber driver out there. In fact, by far the most requested (and demanded) feature is an in-app tip function similar to what Lyft already offers, but the odds are slim that it’s ever going to happen. Uber has taken a pretty hard-line stance against tipping–they even say it’s racist–but instead are more interested in improving their drivers’ bottom line in other ways.

I’m waiting to see what those other ways are, because merit badges aren’t paying the bills. Neither are stars for that matter, but at least they serve some sort of purpose in that it tells riders that I’m awesome.

Look how awesome I am, so many stars (with no dollar value).
Look how awesome I am, so many stars (with no dollar value).

If Uber is truly serious about improving their drivers’ bottom line while still discouraging tips, then it would be a great idea to give some kind of performance bonus for high ratings or compliments. Hell, just about every other job does this already; servers are motivated by potentially high tips, workers are motivated by the chance of a raise or promotion, Tom Merritt is motivated by watching his Patreon numbers go up. OK, sure, some people are also motivated by the pride of a job well done, but for argument’s sake we’re not talking about those weirdos. At the moment, the only motivation for an Uber driver to give a five-star experience is so they won’t get deactivated. Beyond that, a driver with a 4.95 rating is treated pretty much the same in Uber’s system as a driver with a 4.61 rating; all stick, no carrot. And you wonder why drivers can be disgruntled.

Anyway, while I pass on my brilliant idea to Mr. Jones that I’m sure he’s heard a dozen times already, feel free to leave a compliment if you’re so impressed with your driver’s service. It’ll be appreciated, but a couple of dollar bills will be appreciated so much more.

Sekani Wright is an experienced Uber driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!

Your Private Driver: The Waze Effect

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. Look for it every Tuesday after the live show, right here on dailytechnewsshow.com.

I’ve always maintained that Google Maps was the superior choice for turn-by-turn navigation over the more popular Waze, and I thought I made a pretty compelling case for why. Still, thanks mostly in part to my lack of a proper Silicon-Valley marketing budget, convincing others of this has been something of a challenge.

During my Uber runs, riders sometimes ask whether or not I’m using Waze. I tell them no, and tell them why. Most are satisfied with the explanation, but others don’t care and insist that I use Waze anyway. They do this by opening up the Waze app on their own phones and blaring the turn-by-turn directions loud enough for me to hear and follow. It takes back-seat driving to a new level of annoyance.

Relevant to this, a random technological glitch gave me an interesting opportunity last week. That glitch was that my Galaxy S7 phone decided to just not work anymore (no, it wasn’t the battery…or the washing machine). Until I could get a replacement shipped out, I had to use my wife’s iPhone 6S to run the Uber app. For some reason, the Uber Driver app doesn’t work well with Google Maps on iOS; the Maps app would refuse to load directions for several minutes, in a couple of cases the trip was over before Maps was working properly. I decided to use Waze instead, since it performed much more reliably on the iPhone.

The really interesting thing was that now that I was actually using Waze, all complaints, objections, and second-guesses about the routes I took vanished. Even when the directions were pretty obviously obtuse, everyone just assumed that Waze knew what it was doing and that it must be smarter. In one case I’m pretty sure I could have picked a faster way to the airport in my sleep, but the passengers were perfectly satisfied taking the suggested route as long as Waze said that it was the best.

As for the routes themselves, while Google Maps prefers to stay on main roads as long as they’re not super-congested, Waze almost pointlessly meanders through slower side roads in what looks like an attempt to avoid traffic. It’s an interesting sort of game that can make a driver think they’re taking a lucrative shortcut and getting one over on the rest of those peons stuck in traffic, but in reality the time saved is often negligible at best, even with all the extra navigation work.

Still, there’s no arguing that the majority perception, at least in Los Angeles, is that Waze is the only way to deal with traffic. I find it amazing how the app has not only earned its reputation through word of mouth, but kept it despite all of its shortcomings. Sometimes you don’t really have to be the best, you just have to convince everyone else that you are.

Hey, it worked for Apple.

Sekani Wright is an experienced Uber driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!

Your Private Driver: Man About Town

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. Look for it every Tuesday after the live show, right here on dailytechnewsshow.com.

This is a column about an emerging yet transformative technology, written for those who are fans of technology. Still, when it comes to Uber, most people are uninterested in the logistics of how a car gets to your door in five minutes and just want me to share my crazy stories. Over the course of three years and over two thousand rides, I can come up with a few.

Every day I’m reminded that Los Angeles is indeed the capital of the entertainment industry. Riders who work in movies, TV, music, video games, or even tech start-ups are par for the course. I’ve driven executives for Walt Disney, marketers for Lionsgate, programmers for Snapchat, and sales people for Netflix. I’ve driven backup dancers, costume designers, actors and actresses, cover bands, set riggers, amateur video producers, and others connected with industries in ways that I can’t even comprehend. I’ve driven to cocktail parties in Bel Air, through the middle of film shoots on Santa Monica Boulevard, behind the gates of CBS and Paramount Studios, and even to the secluded campus of Blizzard Entertainment. I’ve heard conversations about cancelled TV pilots that most people will never hear about. I’ve listened to people talk about millions of dollars in the way most of us talk about tens. I’ve listened to studio and licensing deals be made and fall apart in my back seat. I’ve learned that apparently every female game developer in the city works at Riot Games. And so many other things.

Celebrities? Maybe, but if so I didn’t recognize them. Being a big fan of video games I did have a couple of moments that really stood out. The first was when I met Jamie Alcroft (the voice of Colonel Hoffman from the Gears of War series) and his wife when I took them to a show at the Hollywood Bowl. The second was picking up a group of gaming press personalities, including Arthur Gies and Kat Bailey, from EA’s DICE studio where they were getting an early look at Battlefield 1. It was really cool to chat with them a little about their experiences over two weeks before the game was released. I also got a chance to talk to an animator who worked on the Cartoon Network Thundercats reboot, and he actually gave me some very interesting details about what was supposed to happen in the second season that never aired.

Beyond that though, most riders are still regular folks like you and me, with regular concerns. I’ve had teenage girls ask me for advice after embarrassing themselves in front of a cute guy. I’ve had a woman who was nearly in tears after she was late for work again because she couldn’t seem to wake herself up on time. I’ve listened to women talk openly about their vaginal piercings. I had a family from out of the country with a cranky three-year-old that had to be bribed with candy from my secret stash so he’d stay quiet long enough to finish the ride. I’ve talked with riders going through breakups, riders who are falling in love, and even riders on their first date. I was also witness to a drunken argument that ended with one partner telling the other “I hope you get raped.”

I’ve listened to waaaaaaaaaay too many people give their opinions on Donald Trump.

I had a music lover introduce me to Zedd. I was given future career advice from a Google employee. I was given hugs and thank yous from a quadriplegic man’s wife for bringing him home safely. I’ve been propositioned for sex–multiple times. I’ve even managed to convert a few Waze lovers to Google Maps.

But the craziest stuff? Well, I have two candidates, and it should be no surprise that both times alcohol was involved.

I picked up two guys on a birthday celebration who were on their way to the casino. They got really happy when “Thong Song” came on the Spotify-powered radio, and requested that I blast it on repeat for the entire twenty-minute trip. When we arrived, they invited me in to celebrate with them. Which I did, since I had nothing better to do. As part of the party they paid for a spot at the craps table for me. At the end of the night, that casino trip ended up nearly paying my rent for the month. I also got a half bottle of champagne out of the deal.

I picked up a group of four women for what I assume was a bachelorette party. One of them drunkenly asked if I was gay, to which I replied “No, I like boobs too much.” This led to the ladies deciding amongst themselves who had the best boobs of the four of them, and the winner was apparently the women in the front passenger seat. The drunk woman who originally inquired about my sexual orientation seemed to think that since I was a fan of boobs, I should get a better look at the best ones… so she started taking her friend’s top off. I consider myself to be a professional, so my primary responsibility is always to be watching the road. Not much can make that job harder than a two-girl strip show in the passenger seat of your car though.

The human interaction elements are what make the Uber experience so interesting, whether you love them or hate them. I know most of you can’t wait for the self-driving Johnny Cabs to finally hit the road and replace us annoying humans, but you gotta admit, those rides are gonna be really boring.

Sekani Wright is an experienced Uber driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!